Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Art Museum, Pt. 2: Insuffrable NYT Weenie Gets His Facts Wrong

New York Times architecture critic Nicholai Ouroussoff doesn’t much like the interior of the addition to the Akron Art Museum. But he really doesn’t like Akron. More to the point, he doesn’t like his pre-conceived notion of what a city like Akron would be and he certainly didn’t allow any actual facts to disrupt that notion.
Here’s what he has to say about the immediate environs of the Museum:

    The old museum, housed in a 19th-century Renaissance Revival building that once served as a post office, stands on a commercial strip facing an ugly brick-clad parking structure in downtown Akron. This is the dark side of the America recalled by Robert Venturi: a haunted Main Street U.S.A. of decrepit brick buildings, vacant windows and empty storefronts.
If I had moved out of town six years ago and read that in the Times, I'd have wondered -- did they move the whole museum onto South Main? It's as if Ouroussoff traveled to the museum blindfolded, then pulled out notes from a visit to Akron twenty years ago to set the scene. Not only does he traffic in a hoary and wildly overstated view of Akron's plight, he gets basic facts wrong.

Let’s break that paragraph down.

"The old museum . . .stands on a commercial strip" No, it doesn’t. It stands between the new main library and the Summit Art Space which is housed in an old schools. There isn’t any commercial space on that street for blocks in either direction. “. . . facing an ugly brick-clad parking structure . . .” Not to put to fine a point on it, but the old museum faces another old building across Market which was the former art museum before it moved into the building which will now confusingly be called the old art museum. The “ugly brick-clad parking structure” is to the side of the old building, though it faces the new entrance. It’s the new parking deck for the new Main Library not the old, run down parking deck the description makes it sound like.

Parking decks by their nature are hard to make pretty, but this one is about as nice as they come, with a modern façade and glassed-in spiral staircase. I understand why a New Yorker might be weirded out by the idea of being able to park, but we like to take advantage of the little pleasures Midwest life offers. The photo to the left is taken approaching the Museum on High Street, walking beside the Knight Center. The library and parking deck that offended Ouroussoff's sensibilities is there on the left.

I’d have been able to forgive the misstatements about the locale of the Museum without that last sentence. But when he talks about "the dark side of the America recalled by Robert Venturi: a haunted Main Street U.S.A. of decrepit brick buildings, vacant windows and empty storefronts he moves from simply not paying attention to altering facts to fit preconceived notions.

Akron possesses its share of haunted neighborhoods -- as does New York, for that matter. But no observer walking through the area around the Museum could honestly invoke haunted Main Street. The museum is surrounded by new and renovated buildings. The Knight Convention Center is less than 15 years old. The Library less than five. Tony Troppe's Historic District is just down the street. Across the street to the north the Akron Bar Association is renovating an old fire station for their new headquarters.

By the way, the beginning of the next paragraph is bull as well: "Coop Himmelb(l)au treats this history with just the right amount of respect, neither trying too hard to fit in with it nor begrudging its importance."

No, the new wing of the Museum ignores the history of the place around it. That’s pretty much the point. And frankly if the architects had done otherwise, no one from the Times would have been writing about it.

If anyone doubts that Ouroussoff’s cartoonishly cosmopolitan condescension informs his error-riddled description of the area, this passage from further in the review should quell those doubts:
    At street level, a section of the glass wall pops open to create the main entrance, Above, the lobby’s glass enclosure tilts back violently and then lurches out again over the roof of the brick building, as if it were cracking under some invisible strain.

    The sense of compression is more than a visual game. It is a deliberate tactic for injecting a fragment of urbanity — a hint of the social, ethnic and creative frictions that defined the 20th-century metropolis — into an otherwise lifeless Midwestern strip. Coop Himmelb(l)au clearly views the city as a place of intellectual freedom and creative ferment, and an antidote to the supposed repressive conformity of small-town America.
Well gosh-all-darnit when I read that I puttinear coughed mah RC Cola up through m’nose.

Don’t east-coast sophisticates despise cliché and vulgarity above all else? Yet they still cling to their vulgar, clichéd view of Midwestern life.

By the way, I've forged a couple new labels for these posts. Since I hit art-related topics at least occasionally, I lifted "Artsy but not Fartsy" from the author Lorrie Moore. And Phlyover Country will label any post about all things Midwest and/or coastal contempt for the same. Yes I'm using that cloying "ph" for "f" trope, but what do you expect from a hick from Akron?


Ben said...

Hey, I dont like the NYT, so I enjoy your post.

Dont worry about using the "PH" for "F" - I do it all the time in reference to the Phillies.

redhorse said...

well played, Ben.

As to the NYT review, I thought it like you: how can I come to some town I hate and make sure my view is consistent with that feeling. And oh, did I say I hate this assignment yet?


Julie said...

Thank you for defending the museum and the surrounding environment. As someone who works in one of the "decrepit brick buildings," I really wondered if this guy was walking around blindfolded. The interscetion of High and Market Street is hardly the dump he described. If this critic would have opened his eyes, he would have noticed that this area is an urban revitalization success story. The building have all been refirbished and house thriving businesses.

Anonymous said...

"Coop Himmelb(l)au clearly views the city as a place of intellectual freedom and creative ferment, and an antidote to the supposed repressive conformity of small-town America."

It's not all that clear to me how Coop Himmelb(l)au views the city. Hahahaha.